Late August is not the best weather for porch sitting, but that is exactly what James has on his mind as he puts away the last of the supper dishes. He moves across the kitchen in a familiar rhythm. The clank of one plate echoes as he slides it into the cabinet. He rubs down the counter and dries his hands with the towel that hangs on the backside of the door under the sink.
“You wanna go outside for a little bit?”
He speaks to his dog, Red, who is watching his every move. Red is tuned into James like a ham radio that picks up signals from across the Atlantic. Funny how a dog can read a man, how he can anticipate the next thing before the next thing happens. Red is already standing by the door even before James asks the question.
The TV does not interest James so much these days. He much prefers the view off the front porch to the one inside the house. Out on the porch, he can let his mind wander out across the open pastures. Occasionally, he might pretend to read a book, but the porch always takes his mind somewhere else.
He pushes the screen door open as he reaches down to give Red a pork chop bone. The spring on the door creaks long and slow. He could oil it up, but he likes the sound. It reminds him of his childhood and all the times he had hit that door at a full gallop. His mama hollering after him.
“Jimmy Lee,” she had a stern voice. “Don’t you let that door slam behind you.” And he would almost twist his back out of shape turning around to catch it just before it hammered against the door jam.
“Yes ma’am. Sorry.” And off he’d go to find some adventure.
He stands for a moment at the edge of the porch and leans against the post. Red is lying in the yard just beyond the bottom step, teeth grinding on his bone. James taps his pipe against the post and reloads from his pouch. He takes the silver lighter, flips it open and tips it over the open pipe. A few draws and he clicks the lighter closed as he slips it back in his pocket.
The aroma swirls around him and he remembers his grandpa.
“Jimmy, come over here and sit in my lap for a minute.” Jimmy obeys and settles in next to a beagle pup already occupying half the lap. He always liked the smell of a pipe, almost sweet, he thought.
When he was a kid, James never really gave much thought as to whether or not he would be a pipe smoker. He snuck out behind the barn one time with some of his cousins and tried a few cigarettes that he borrowed from his uncle’s shirt pocket. But it made him feel all green and he gagged so hard he thought he was gonna die.
It wasn’t until he was nearly 30 years old, when, after the funeral, he kept his grandpa’s pipe and lit it up to remember him. The habit just kind of grew on him.
Feeling his weight, James settles down into his rocking chair. Red is off in the distance, circling through the tall grass of the old pasture, just his tail visible like a flag marking his movements. The rocker was painted green at one time, but most of the paint is worn off, now. Even the wooden arms are worn smooth from the hands that have rubbed the edges over the years.
Without even trying, James can hear the rumble of his dad’s old 8N Ford tractor making rounds with the hay rake. His uncle Butch behind him on the Farmall pulling the baler down each row, small round bales rolling out the back, scattered across the field like a sack of marbles dropped on the sidewalk.
A car passes by out on the county road. All James can see is the roof as it appears to be floating above the sedges and golden rod. The road out front used to be a dirt road. There weren’t many, but the cars that did pass by always left a cloud of red dust trailing behind.
Elbow propped, chin in hand, James is seeing things far away.
When he was a boy, and his daddy took him to town on a Saturday to run by the bank and the feed store, he could always tell by looking at the cars who lived in town and who didn’t. The cars that belonged to country folk like them were covered in red dust. The back of the boot lid, the hubcaps, the back window were all coated. The cars in town were clean. It was even more obvious when it rained.
Sitting out on the porch gives a man time to think. A lot has changed in the last 60 years. Used to be there was one main paved highway into town and every road that turned off that highway was red dirt.
He rode his bike miles and miles on those roads. Played on the old train trestle over the creek. He knew he could always get a cold drink of water if he stopped in at Aunt Emma’s house. It occurs to him that he’s not even sure anymore where to find a dirt road in these parts.
The evening is beginning to fade. James has been lost in his thoughts so long; his pipe has gone out. He relights and starts up the rocking motion again with the toe of his right boot.
The sun is just below the low hanging branches of the oaks in the front yard like it’s balanced on the horizon. The heat of the day is gone, and though the air is not cool, there is a pleasantness to the evening that he enjoys. Red has made his way back to the porch, lying there a few feet away, chin on the floor.
There’s been a lot of life lived on this porch. He shelled peas and snapped beans with his mama out here. There’s been many a plate of food held on wobbly knees out here when the house was full at Thanksgiving. Right over there is the stool he sat on when it was his job to crank the handle on the ice cream churn.
“Ya’ know,” James is thinking to himself. “I never understood why all the old folks seemed to spend so much time sitting around on this porch. Even way after dark. We’d be chasing lightning bugs and running a million miles an hour until mama made us come inside. But the old folks, they just sat here and did much of nothing.”
James pushes himself up from the rocker. Red stands up and heads for the door. The old man bumps his pipe clean one last time.
“You ready to go inside, fella?”
The two pals nudge through the door. The spring cries its sad song. And by reflex, James reaches back to catch the door just before it slams shut.